Nuclear waste site owner levels accusations against Leechburg activist
By Mary Ann Thomas
Published: Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, 9:56 a.m.
Nuclear waste site owner Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) claims that Leechburg environmental activist Patty Ameno destroyed evidence, made false allegations about nuclear contamination at its sites and recently invoked the Fifth Amendment twice in a deposition for a lawsuit.
The allegations against Ameno were in a motion filed by the company on Tuesday as part of the civil-action lawsuit in federal court in Pittsburgh, Michelle McMunn versus Babcock & Wilcox Power Generation Group, Inc. and Atlantic Richfield. The lawsuit claims that radioactive emissions from two former nuclear fuel plants in Apollo and Parks Township caused cancer to local residents.
B&W attorneys claim Ameno has not been forthcoming in releasing documents and information relevant to the lawsuit. The filing also claims she allegedly destroyed some documents after being ordered in March by a federal judge to provide them to the company.
Ameno's attorney, Jonathan Orent, said that the B&W motion has no merit.
“We believe this to be yet another attempt by Babcock & Wilcox to shift the focus away from the allegations against them in this case,” Orent said Thursday in a telephone interview.
“Patty Ameno has devoted 25 years of her life to protecting the public health and environment around Apollo-Parks and deserves better than this. We will fully respond to this soon.”
A motion to enforce a subpoena is not unusual, according to Steven Baicker-McKee, an assistant professor of law at Duquesne University who has 25 years in private practice handling toxic tort, environmental and energy-related litigation.
However, the accusations leveled against Ameno in the court document are unusual, according to Baicker-McKee.
“They appear to be suspecting Ms. Ameno of acting improperly in the way that she recruited clients. It appears that they are suggesting that she convinced them that their cancers were related to the defendants' activities.
The motion also questions public statements that Ameno has made regarding the sites and contamination.
B&W's court documents include news articles from the Valley News Dispatch quoting Ameno regarding alleged off-site nuclear contamination and alleged illegal dumping and workers receiving excess radiation exposure. Some of the articles presented information on well-documented episodes of contamination while others cited informal, verbal accounts by workers.
“This is certainly evidence of very adversarial and hostile relations between the defendants and Ms. Ameno,” Baicker-McKee said.
Reached by telephone Wednesday, Ameno said, “At the advice of my attorneys, I have to let them speak to this nonsense to which I feel is a direct harassment.”
Motley Rice, a South Carolina law firm, has filed approximately 100 individual lawsuits since January 2010 for area residents who allege that their cancers were caused by the nuclear fuel processing plants, according to lead attorney, Jonathan Orent, who also represents Ameno.
However, several individuals have voluntarily dismissed their claims after soil testing conducted by Motley Rice in Parks Township “did not detect airborne plutonium contamination and (we) did not pursue litigation,” Orent said.
“Due to the passage of time, we were unable to detect (the contamination). It's unfortunate because there's documentation and other evidence supporting their claims.”
Currently, the case is in pre-trial discovery, meaning the sides are exchanging documents and information.
According to the recent B&W's motion: “Defendants have sought to learn what Patricia Ameno told plaintiffs to convince them that their cancers were caused by defendants and to commit themselves to time-consuming lawsuits that undoubtedly have disrupted their personal lives.”
The court document characterizes Ameno as a “paid promoter of litigation against the defendants.
“In order to drum up claims against defendants, Ms. Ameno held a series of public meetings in which she apparently told prospective Plaintiffs that Defendants caused their cancers, even though no epidemiological evidence supports this claim,” the document states. “Ms. Ameno enlisted dozens of Plaintiffs, even though they had no scientific or medical basis for suing defendants.”
The filing cited some prospective litigants with lung cancer who smoked up to two packs of cigarettes a day for decades and others who lived miles away from the Apollo facility.
The filing goes on to say that Ameno was paid $70 per plaintiff by Motley Rice and that she destroyed invoices. According to a Jan. 4, 2010 letter from Motley Rice to Ameno, she was hired by the firm as an independent contractor to “aid in the investigation and prosecution of lawsuits” related to the Armstrong County former nuclear fuels plants.
B&W also alleges that “Plaintiffs' counsel permitted Ms. Ameno to destroy the emails she exchanged with individual plaintiffs and other documents responsive to defendants subpoenas.”
The document also questions Ameno invoking the Fifth Amendment during her deposition with the defendants on Sept. 5.
The Fifth Amendment gives an individual the right to not give testimony that could potentially be self-incriminating.
Ameno took the Fifth Amendment twice when she refused to identify who allegedly provided her with information verifying that there is high-level nuclear waste at the B&W dump in Parks Township.
Currently, the federal government classifies the B&W site in Parks as a low-level nuclear waste dump that includes contaminated wipes, clothing, equipment and other items. According to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, high-level wastes are highly radioactive and require special handling and disposal.
Orent said Ameno is in no way blocking B&W's efforts to defend itself.
“Patty is not seeking to avoid discovery,” he said. “She opened her house up to these people for eight days, and they went through her whole office and had unfettered accessed to her office.”
B&W's motion specifically seeks production of Ameno's invoices, list of documents that she allegedly destroyed after the subpoenas were served and a log of other documents. The company also wants Ameno to appear to continue her deposition.
The defendants, B&W and Atlantic Richfield, operated a uranium fuel-processing plant in Apollo and a plutonium plant in Parks from 1967 to 1986.
The plants originally were operated by Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. (NUMEC).
The plaintiffs include Michelle McMunn, representing the estate of her mother Eva Myers, who lived within 400 feet of the Apollo plant for decades and died of lung cancer in 2008, according to the complaint. McMunn is suing for wrongful death, injuries and damages.
An earlier, similar lawsuit that spanned 14 years against the companies resulted in more than $80 million in settlements.
Although the companies settled the first lawsuit, they have always denied that their operations caused illnesses and property damage.
Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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